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Crazy Ants Harmful to Texas Governments' Computers

Texas A&M professor says invasive species could conceivably endanger the public.

The "Rasberry Crazy Ant," a non-native insect discovered in 2002 by Tom Rasberry of Budget Pest Control in Pasadena, Texas, has spread to at least 11 counties, terrorizing birds and other insects, and infesting homes and computer equipment. In October, the Texas Department of Agriculture and the U.S. Department of Agriculture formed the Texas Paratrechina Best Management Practices Task Force in an effort to control the ant's spread. Texas Technology talked to Roger Gold, professor of entomology at Texas A&M University, about this pest that has stormed parts of Houston.

It's been said that these invasive Rasberry Crazy Ants are a scourge to electronics, especially wiring and computers. Is this an exaggeration?

They have a tendency to forage in tight spaces and the electronics provide warmth. They go in there looking for food and eventually they will short out the equipment. When the first few of them get shocked, apparently they release an alerting pheromone, and the other ants rush in and they end up causing a worse electrical short.

The damage has been estimated, and they're coming from very large chemical companies that are talking about damage measured in millions of dollars due to the fact the computers are shutting down, which takes a plant out of operation - just a few hours of operation is a lot of money. And it's happening frequently, more so than people will talk about.

What can be done to kill these ants off before they're hopelessly out of control?

We've been working on the general biology and spread of the ant. I've had a graduate student, Jason Meyers, who actually did the work in attempting to identify the ant and some of the possible control measures. There are a number of things that I think are very positive. One of the things that has happened is Texas issued what's called a "crisis exemption" for Termidor - a product that has been proven to be fairly effective against the ants.

Is the crazy ant killing other animals, or at least displacing other species from their habitats?

It is, which is really interesting. Apparently it can compete extremely well with the red imported fire ant. It just overwhelms it with its numbers and steals the [fire ant's] brood. And so unfortunately, the people who have had this red imported fire ant would rather have it back than have this little tiny [crazy] ant, which is here by the millions and is invading their homes.

They've also associated with some endangered species habitats, such as the Atwater's Prairie Chicken, and they will take out ground-nesting birds. Where the ants are found, you don't see many other insects or you don't hear or see birds, so they really do have an impact that has yet to be documented.

Animals are one thing, but are these crazy ants a danger to people?

The problem is that we have an introduced species that is spreading, and the fact that we don't know for sure exactly if it's a new species or a subspecies of an existing species. We don't really have good control measures, and we have no resources in order to take on this problem. And that's always the issue - the resources. It's one thing to meet as a group and discuss a problem. It's another thing to actually solve the problem.

We need to do more work, in my opinion, on stopping the spread. We need to let people know that if they live near the ant, they need to be very careful where they move it. It's moved with commerce - normal activities like the movement of goods.

People who are in these susceptible areas - where the ants are and are expected to go - in my opinion, need to hire professional pest management services to try to protect buildings and the equipment from the invasion of the ants. This goes well beyond what you might think. For example, the ant has been located at the Johnson Space Center - which is NASA - and [Houston's] Hobby Airport, so you're talking about critical situations about human safety.